Iran reaps economic and strategic rewards from Iraqi-Kurdish dispute

Iran reaps economic and strategic rewards from Iraqi-Kurdish dispute
Analysis: The rise of Iran-backed militias in northern Iraq gives Tehran a geopolitical opening, but there are no guarantees it will be able to consolidate power there, writes Paul Iddon.
6 min read
24 November, 2017
Iran-backed PMF militias were instrumental in the fight against IS [AFP]
Just over a month after Kirkuk and other areas disputed between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan were seized by the Iraqi army and the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) umbrella group of mostly Shia militias, Tehran looks set to become a major, if not the principal, benefactor - at least for now.

Iran reportedly helped Iraq seize Kirkuk so swiftly on October 16 by brokering a deal between Baghdad and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a major Kurdish party which constituted the predominant political entity in Kirkuk and whose Peshmerga fighters constituted the most significant Kurdish paramilitary force in the area.

Iran had threatened the PUK beforehand, reportedly also offering them incentives to surrender the entire province without a fight, as they subsequently did.

The next day, Kurdish Peshmerga loyal to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) also withdrew from disputed areas they had controlled, including the Sinjar region where the Islamic State group had subjected the Yazidi minority to a campaign of genocide.

PMF forces, many loyal to Iran, had already seized some villages from IS in Sinjar and clearly coveted a significant foothold in that strategically important region for some time.

Oil-rich Kirkuk

In Kirkuk, invariably described with the prefix "oil-rich", Iraq will supply crude oil to the refinery in the Iranian Kurdish city of Kermanshah as part of a new agreement.

"Under the new agreement," reported Reuters, "the first oil will be trucked across the border in the coming days. Initially Iran will receive 15,000 barrels per day, worth nearly $1 million, rising gradually to 60,000 bpd, according to Iraqi officials and trading sources."

Most of Kirkuk's oil was hitherto piped to Ceyhan in Turkey and sold on the international markets. Iran hopes that the construction of a pipeline to its central provinces can give it easy access to the oil of that resource-rich region.
Last month's retaking of Kirkuk by Baghdad put a major dent in Kurdistan's potential as a major independent oil exporter

Tehran no doubt sees attaining a significant stake of Kirkuk's oil exports as significant and perhaps, at least partially, sees it through the lens of its cold war with Israel.

In 2015, the Financial Times reported that two-thirds of Israel's oil supply was independently exported by the Kurds. Iranian press outlets and officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, routinely referred to the September 25 Kurdish independence referendum as an Israeli plot to divide Iraq and create a "new Israel".

Last month's retaking of Kirkuk by Baghdad put a major dent in Kurdistan's potential as a major independent oil exporter and, from the Iranian regime's vantage point, therefore disadvantaged Israeli interests in the region.

The PMF presence in Sinjar could also give Tehran another strategic boost in the region and, ultimately, against Israel.

Strategic Sinjar

Sinjar is significant in Tehran's eyes since it could provide a secure route stretching all the way from Iran's border with Iraq's Diyala province - of which Iran-backed PMF forces control large swathes for years - through Sinjar on the Syrian border, all the way to Syria's Mediterranean coastline, which also makes resupplying Hizballah in Lebanon much easier.

Al-Monitor columnist Mahmut Bozarsian quoted the former deputy of the Kurdish Gorran (Change) Movement, who assesses the situation as follows: "For Iran, [Sinjar] is the key to an Iran-Syria connection via Iraq. If Iran can control [Sinjar], it will have easy access to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Also don't forget there are Sunni areas in [Sinjar]. To keep Sunnis under observation is important for Iran."

Mount Sinjar itself is an area of immense strategic importance.

Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein attempted to use the high ground of the region to build an artillery super-gun to target Israel. This never materialised, largely due to his military defeat in the 1991 Gulf War.
Were Iran to send heavy weapons or missiles capable of targeting Israel to its proxies in Sinjar, the Israelis may well extend their intermittent Syrian airstrikes across the border into northern Iraq

PMF fighters quickly took position on the mountain shortly after taking over Sinjar last month. One anonymous Kurdish official has said that control over the mountain could give Tehran "control of the area", adding that it could even "launch an attack on Tel Aviv".

Israel has launched numerous pre-emptive airstrikes since January 2013 to destroy advanced missile silos in Syria, which the Israelis claim Hizballah could have obtained and used against them in a future war. Were Iran to send heavy weapons or missiles capable of targeting Israel to its proxies in Sinjar, the Israelis may well extend their intermittent Syrian airstrikes across the border into northern Iraq.

It's much more likely that Tehran will, at most, use Sinjar as a transit route as described by Bozarsian.

Disputed territories

Kirkuk, Sinjar and the other territories re-taken by the Iraqi army and PMF from the Peshmerga last month are constitutionally disputed between Baghdad and Erbil, the legal status of which can only be conclusively resolved through implementation of the Iraqi Constitution's Article 140.

On October 20, the US State Department released a statement which unequivocally asserted this.

The Kurds completely controlled Kirkuk following the Iraqi army's retreat in the face of the lightning IS advance in June 2014. Sinjar, on the other hand, has been under Kurdish control since 2003, as was Khanqin and other territories seized by the Iraqi/PMF forces last month.

Given the nature of these territories, Iran's proxies may not be able to feasibly justify a permanent presence there, especially if the political situation in Iraq changes in the near future. Baghdad would likely accept power-sharing agreements with the Kurds in the near future, something the United States, allied as it is with both sides, would doubtlessly welcome.

This could potentially limit Iran's ability to move proxy forces and weapons to Syria through these territories.

These aren't the only circumstances whereby Iran may find it difficult to entrench their proxies. Kirkuk is a Sunni-majority region, save for some Shia Turkmen, which cannot feasibly be controlled and/or policed and stabilised by PMF militias. It certainly cannot remain a stable province without the participation - especially in regards to the administration of the region - of the Kurdish-majority there.

Also, as Bozarsian points out, Iran has "no religious or ethnic ties to Sinjar", which could make it harder for it to retain a significant foothold there in the long term.

So, while Iran has a lot to gain from the Iraqi takeover of these territories, these are still early days and the ultimate outcome from last month's tumultuous events is far from clear. The situation may again change in the foreseeable future - and not necessarily to Tehran's advantage. 

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon